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In the Blood

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 17, 2017

Saycon Sengbloh and Jocelyn Bioh
Photo by Joan Marcus

Forget Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novel "The Scarlet Letter" is credited with being the inspiration for the pair of works by Suzan-Lori Parks being presented at the Pershing Square Signature Center. With respect to the stunning production of In the Blood, at least, the voice that echoes is not Hawthorne's, but that of the poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, who so perfectly captured the lives of black women in her iconic choral work for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

Where Fucking A, Parks's companion play, keeps the audience at arm's length, In the Blood grabs you by the throat from the moment it begins and does not let up for the next two hours. There's not even an intermission to allow you to catch your breath. And where Fucking A is set in some nebulous mythic place and time, In the Blood takes place most emphatically in the here and now. Most disturbingly, that "here and now" is no different today than it was in 1999 when the play was first produced. Nor is it all that different from the time when Shange's masterful colored girls declared four decades ago: ""i cdnt stand bein sorry & colored at the same time / it's so redundant in the modern world."

In the Blood tells the story of Hester (aka "La Negrita"), perfectly embodied by Saycon Sengbloh as the single mother of five children between the ages of two and 13, all fathered by different and long-gone men. Hester and her "treasures," as she calls them, live together under a bridge in an unnamed urban setting. The kids romp and stomp and fly all over scenic designer Louisa Thompson's found-playground of a set, wearing odds and ends of repurposed clothing and playing with discarded toys that periodically are dumped onto the embankment they call home. Hester does her best to protect her kids from a world that would happily discard all of them as well. She gives up eating so that they can have what little food she can scrape up, and she tries to stay positive and strong for their sakes. But no matter where she turns, the cards are stacked against her.

The play is told in a series of encounters with those who are in a position to help Hester but who fail to assist beyond the least they feel they can get away with. There's the condescending Welfare Lady, played by Jocelyn Bioh (who also excels as Hester's rambunctious daughter Bully). As the Welfare Lady, she shows up wearing an immaculate suit, but with plastic bags covering her shoes against the filthy environment. She is there to offer what minimal aid the government grudgingly provides. "I care," she declares, "because it is my job to care. I am paid to stretch out these hands."

Slightly more sympathetic is the Doctor (Frank Wood), although his end game is to set Hester up with a sterilizing hysterectomy (a "spay," as he calls it), surgery whole-heartedly embraced by the Welfare Lady. There also is Hester's white prostitute friend Amiga Gringa (Ana Reeder), who recognizes her own position as being higher in the pecking order than the besieged black woman. When Amiga Gringa finds herself pregnant, she decides to carry the fetus to term because she sees an opportunity in the making: "Do you have any idea how much cash I'll get for the fruit of my white womb?"

Parks does not completely absolve Hester from responsibility for her lot in life. Hester is not eager to take on the kinds of jobs offered to her by the Welfare Lady, who pointedly tells her, "The world is not here to help us. The world is simply here." Hester also has avoided learning to read and write; the best she can do under the tutelage of her eldest child, Jabber (Michael Braun), is to scratch out the letter "A." This is an obvious reference to Hawthorne, but Parks, always mindful of history, is also taking us back to the time when literacy was forbidden to slaves.

In a series of "confessions," each of the adult characters steps forward to admit their culpability in maintaining the status quo. "I walk the line," says the Welfare Lady, "between our kind and their kind. The balance of the system depends on a well-drawn boundary line." And when Hester connects briefly and uselessly with the fathers of two of her children, Reverend D (Russell G. Jones), a hustling street preacher, and Chilli (Mr. Braun), who has stayed away for all of his son Jabber's life, these crushing encounters contribute inevitably to the play's violent and devastating ending.

Suzan-Lori Parks's plays are often abstract and are not always easy to bring fully to life in performance. The Signature's recent presentations have been hit-and-miss. Despite their powerful underlying stories, neither the confusing production of Venus nor the despondently dystopian production of Fucking A was fully effective in creating that emotional gut-punch needed to capture the audience's empathy. But In the Blood, brilliantly helmed by director Sarah Benson, hits all of the marks and absolutely makes the case for why the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parks is considered to be one of our great contemporary playwrights. And if we are paying attention, we must understand that we are being asked to consider what role we (collectively and individually) can/should be playing in helping those who are society's cast-offs.

In the Blood
Through October 15
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: